Reviewing media here always feels like straddling a fence. On one hand, I’m a professional critic, and that’s a lens that never really goes away. On the other hand, when I’m writing or talking at xplainthexmen.com, I’m largely speaking as a fan, to other fans; and my considerations change accordingly. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, those perspectives line up, and everything is smooth sailing.
Other times, it’s X-Men: Apocalypse.
Look: Miles and I both enjoyed the hell out of this movie. I’m definitely going to see it again, probably more than once. When I put on my fan goggles, it’s awesome, delightful, rewarding. We spent a lot of the movie elbowing each other in the ribs and grinning; and then being really glad that the critic we happened to be sitting next to was our former producer Bobby, who has no illusions of our professionalism for us to shatter.
At the same time, there is no real question that X-Men: Apocalypse fails as a cohesive whole. In general, it plays less like the conclusion of a trilogy than like the final stage of a very large and unwieldy truck navigating a very narrow hairpin turn in hopes of finding clear highways ahead: an impressive feat, but not particularly epic unless you’re the guy at the wheel.
Many of Apocalypse‘s problems are structural. It’s essentially an uneven and poorly-paced mash-up of two movies: one, a decidedly lackluster story about Xavier and Magneto continuing to rehash the same feelings we’ve been watching them slog through for two preceding movies; and the other, a pretty solid coming-of-age flick about the next generation of X-kids. This might account for the tonal dissonance that dogs many of the most cinematically spectacular sequences–most notably, a reprise of the slow-time Quicksilver scene from Days of Future Past, which is so caught up in its own self-satisfied novelty that it completely bypasses what should and easily could be devastating emotional resonance.
There’s also the problem of Apocalypse himself, who, in the tradition of the comics, is a compelling figure but a really dull antagonist. Oscar Isaac’s understated performance holds up well–there’s something incredibly unsettling about near-omnipotence wielded that casually–while quietly establishing Apocalypse himself as a subtle but effective mirror for Charles Xavier. But Apocalypse never quite stops feeling contrived, and the nods to his traditional comics portrayal are shoehorned in with very little narrative justification. Aside from Magneto, the horsemen mostly stand around looking bored while their boss pontificates. And while there’s destruction aplenty, it tends toward the Zack Snyder school of depersonalized violence, where cities fall with no real glimpse or even acknowledgment of the human fallout.
(It’s probably also worth noting that the decision to schedule the press and preview screenings for a Monday when a good deal of the audience would be going in with Civil War or Deadpool–both vastly superior films–fresh in their minds is probably not doing the movie any favors in reviews.)
Does this sound dire? It should. Critically, Apocalypse is a train wreck. But you know what? It’s also awesome. And that awesomeness largely takes the form of the other movie, the one about the new generation of X-kids.
That movie is fun and compelling. It’s got a ton of heart, a terrific heist, and more moments that really feel like the X-Men than most of the previous films put together. And those things give it a solid enough foundation to make the flaws I noted above minor missteps rather than the deal-breakers they become against the comparatively weak backdrop of the Charles-and-Erik show.
The heart of that second story is the new kids: Cyclops, Jean Grey, Storm, and Nightcrawler. (Yes, Jubilee is in the movie; no, I’m not counting her in this group. No spoilers; she just doesn’t have enough screen time to be relevant.) Characters and actors are both walking an incredibly delicate line here: on one hand, they’re the new faces of the cinematic X-Men; but at the same time, they’re reprising the iconic roles with which the series launched sixteen years ago. They have to play close enough to model to stay recognizable; while bringing new blood–and change–to a foundering franchise.
And damn, do they nail it.
Sophie Turner plays Jean Grey with a prickly, walled-off eeriness that makes a lot of sense for someone who’s grown up bombarded by everyone else’s thoughts and feelings (and which has historically tended to get sacrificed to writers’ need to make Jean As Likable As Possible). Kodi Smit McPhee’s Nightcrawler is open, charismatic, and a really lovely bridge between his cinematic predecessor and the best antecedents from other media (and, I suspect, will be particularly appealing to fans of X-Men: Evolution). Alexandra Shipp is the Storm I’ve been waiting sixteen years to see–albeit somewhat undercut by the fact that Apocalypse, after finding its pitch-perfect Ororo, gives her far too little to do on-screen.
As for Cyclops–
It’s no secret that, even adjusting for the extent to which I’m overinvested in the X-Men in general, I am really overinvested in Scott Summers. As a critic, I can step back; as a fan, every piece of X-media lives and dies by the quality of its Cyclops. And everything I’d seen by way of promotional material and interviews had me really braced for the possibility that I was going to hate this kid.
Yes, the Cyclops of Apocalypse represents a fairly significant departure from previous versions of the character; and his backstory strays very far from the original comics version. (That’s technically true of the original cinematic Cyclops as well, but hasn’t factored into any of the preceding movies.) But that’s just fine, because playing Cyclops as an angry, cocksure, and weirdly normal teenager who’s devastated by and terrified of his powers turns out to be a really compelling spin on the character. Tye Sheridan provides one of the strongest performances of the film; and the result is a Cyclops who’s both recognizable and consistent with previous versions and genuinely new.
Movie #2 isn’t perfect. Storm is underused; Jean is underdeveloped (although Turner’s performance goes a long way to compensate). When the two stories converge, the adults inevitably take the fore, and the movie is the worse for that. Nor, I suspect, will the new characters provide enough of a toehold for newcomers likely to be bogged down by the convolution of what’s come before.
But even if they can’t quite save Apocalypse from itself, the kids at least leave me pretty hopeful about the future of the cinematic X-Men. Assuming the franchise continues in the direction it seems to be headed now that it’s survived that slow and tricky turn, it seems open to a wider range of possibilities than we could get from anything short of a reboot.
Is Apocalypse a good movie? No. Even at its best, it’s an impressive collection of shiningly splendid moments framed by an uneven, continuity-heavy clusterfuck and a shoehorned-in Wolverine appearance. (You can criticize a lot about the X-Men movies, but, hey, at least they’re pretty true to the comics!)
Do I think a straight reboot would be better? Absolutely. While Bryan Singer’s approach was absolutely groundbreaking in 2000 and 2002, now it feels hopelessly dated: in 2016, he’s still making the best superhero movies of 2002. And while I enjoy the messy continuity, and I’m in for the long game regardless, I also recognize that the same stuff I like to sink my teeth into is incredibly offputting to newcomers and often even long-term fans. Fox’s X-Men represent sixteen years of continuity, spanning six movies–not counting the Wolverine solo flicks, which take place in the same universe–and two near-total retcons. It’s time to start fresh.
Am I looking forward to the next one anyway? You bet. It’s taken sixteen years and six movies, but if the end of Apocalypse is actually where the franchise is headed? It’s finally going to be the series I have been waiting for from the start.
And do I think X-Men: Apocalypse is worth watching while you wait? Fuck, yeah. The whole may fall short, but it’s more than worth it for the quality of the parts.
X-Men: Apocalypse opens in theaters everywhere on May 27.
You can find animated versions of the Apocalypse emoji over here.